The sun never sets on Sunset’s Bill Lane


Kevin Starr at the Sunset book launch. (Photo: E. Spencer Toy)

“Bill waited a bit late to start a memoir – he was 88,” said historian Bert Patenaude at the annual “A Company of Authors” event last week at Stanford.  He was speaking about L.W. “Bill” Lane, Jr., and the book for which Bert served as a sort of midwife, The Sun Never Sets: Reflections on a Western Life.  The book traces the story of the late Bill Lane, who was not only longtime publisher of Sunset, but also a pioneering environmentalist and U.S. ambassador.  He died in 2010.


Lane’s late labor (Photo: E. Sunny Toy)

Bert began the project with a series of audiotaped interviews conducted at Lane’s home in Portola Valley and at his summer home at Lake Tahoe.  They were augmented with an oral history for Berkeley’s Bancroft Library in the 1990s. The book was just published Stanford General Books, an imprint of Stanford University Press.

Sunset, as the introduction notes, has played a significant historical role in Western life, especially for those of us transplanted from other climes.  Kevin Starr read from his introduction:

When Laurence W. Lane, Sr., stepped off the ferryboat at the foot of Market Street in mid-October 1928 after a long train ride from Iowa, a parade was in progress and the music of a great brass band filled the Ferry Terminal.  All this was for Columbus Day, of course, but it might have been for Larry Lane as well, since a process was being set in motion – for the new publisher of Sunset, his wife, Ruth Bell Lane, and the two Lane sons, Laurence W. “Bill” Junior and Melvin Bell Lane – that would eventually present the Far West with its most successful magazine publisher and its most successful book publisher, from whom millions would learn how best to live in this still-new region.

I never had the opportunity to build a house of my own, but if I had, it would have been a hacienda like the Sunset offices in Menlo Park.  And if I had ever had any kind of a green thumb, I would have created something like the heavenly garden that surrounds it.  These photos don’t quite do them justice – no fault of photographer Spencer Toy, but the massive Spanish doors and tiling aren’t in the shots of the event. And the gardens … well, nothing could do them justice.

I once knew Sunset well – I lived a stone’s throw away, on the Palo Alto side of San Francisquito Creek.  I hadn’t been back for 25 years, however.  So it was strange and familiar to attend the launch for the book a few weeks ago.

But it was the gardens, in particular, that caught my attention during the visit.  The last time I had visited them was (and this is a confession) when I trespassed onto the property in the early evening hours of March 3, 1988, very nervous and worried.  I knew the beauty of this place would be soothing and healing, for the next day, I knew, would be one of the hardest days of my life.  I didn’t yet know it would also be the best day of my life:  I gave birth to a perfect 9 lb., 9 oz. daughter, who remains perfect to this very day.


Landmark gardens of Sunset (Photo: E. Spencer Toy)

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